Dr Stewart Firth on Australian influence, diplomatic options for Vanuatu and West Papua liberation movement
In this exclusive interview with Dr Stewart Firth, Research Fellow at the Australian National University, specializing in the small states and territories of the Pacific Islands, we talk about the Australian influence in the Pacific, China’s soft power in the region, corruption and post-colonial changes in Vanuatu.
– Dr Firth, would you agree with the opinion that right now the Pacific is becoming more important on the international stage?
Broadly speaking, I would agree, and I think the impetus to this development has been twofold. In the first place, the rise of China in the region has alerted Western powers such as the UK and France to its importance, and is a factor in the regional and defence cooperation we now see between Australia and France. The UK is re-establishing diplomatic posts in Vanuatu, Samoa and Tonga. The China option has given Pacific countries more leverage with traditional partners. In the second place, the high profile of Pacific countries in climate change diplomacy has made the region more important internationally.
‘Countries such as Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands have new freedom of manoeuvre diplomatically’
– In the context of the expanding “diplomatic options” for the Pacific island states, should we expect Melanesian countries to keep moving away from the Australian influence, both political and economical, in the next years?
Australian influence will remain throughout Melanesia for a long time to come, not least because Australia is the default external partner to which Melanesian countries turn in times of natural disaster and for development assistance. And relations between Fiji and Australia are now closer than they were a few years ago. But on many other issues it is true that countries such as Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands have new freedom of manoeuvre diplomatically.
‘China’s soft power in the region is not as strong as some people think’
– In your opinion, how these close relations with China will reflect on the Pacific nations’ (Vanuatu in particular) social and political structure – in the next decade perspective?
Some observers think the China model of development by authoritarian means might recommend itself to Pacific Island countries as they pursue a democratic path, but China’s soft power in the region is not as strong as some people think for a number of reasons, among them the way ordinary Pacific Islanders view many of the new Chinese.
– Could we say Chinese growing presence in the Pacific is a major contributor to rising corruption level in the region?
Corruption was serious in Papua New Guinea before China was an important player in PNG affairs, and is serious in other parts of the Pacific for reasons that have little to do with China. More significant, in my view, is the potential for Chinese loans – attractive to politicians wanting to point to new infrastructure – to burden Pacific countries with unmanageable debt, as has already happened in Tonga.
‘Australian influence in the region has never been entirely benign’
– Some people say the Australian influence nowadays can have quite a negative effect on the Pacific island nations, Vanuatu in particular, too. The main example of that is the proposed introduction of income tax in Vanuatu, allegedly pushed by the Australian Tax Office. Some experts say the introduction of income tax will have a devastating effect on the Vanuatu economy. Would you be able to comment?
Australian influence has never been entirely benign, as we have seen from the efforts by Australia to encourage or impose reforms that emphasise free market solutions that often do not apply in Pacific situations.
– I would like to ask about the Liberation Movement for West Papua and its support by Vanuatu and other Melanesian countries. As a regional expert, what is your opinion on this issue? Does it make sense for Vanuatu to provide this movement with as much support as it does now?
The United Liberation Movement for West Papua is now an observer member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, and is seeking full membership along the lines of the FLNKS in New Caledonia, which, although a political party, is a full member. Indonesia has gone out of its way to frustrate this ambition and seems to be succeeding, given the reluctance of PNG and Fiji to oppose Indonesia. I think Vanuatu’s support for the ULMWP is in accord with its longstanding independence and radicalism in foreign policy but Vanuatu is a small country and its influence on events is likely to be limited.
‘Independence has not brought prosperity to most Pacific Island nations’
– You are also an expert in the Pacific history. Dr Anthony Van Fossen said one particularly interesting thing in the interview for Vila Times: “New Hebrides was far more reputable than Vanuatu is today.” Would you be able to compare colonial and post-colonial time in Vanuatu and other Pacific island nations from this perspective?
A comparison of colonial and post-colonial eras in the Pacific would take a whole book to describe. Independence has not brought prosperity to most Pacific Island nations and the remaining colonial territories such as New Caledonia are better off; but the clock cannot be turned back, and independence, whenever it came, would come with the development challenges so familiar to the ni-Vanuatu.